In terms of structure, After the First Death
is a book that defies simple attempts at classification. Two levels of plot produce a story that is intensely psychological and starkly realistic. The novel begins as a simple adventure tale. Sixteen children are headed by bus to a day camp near Hallowell, Massachussetts. The bus is hijacked by terrorists and driven to a defensible position on a long suspension bridge. At this point, the terrorists issue their demands, the gravity of which is underscored when the children are drugged and one dies from a reaction to the powerful tranquilizer. Inner Delta is then called in to rescue the children. This is not strictly an adventure tale. Overlapping all events is a psychological drama that unfolds through the interplay of five masterfully developed characters. Miro, a young boy schooled in terrorism and guided by blind loyalty to his cause, is placed in charge of the bus and its occupants. He knows little of the reasons behind the hijacking and even less about his own background: He never knew his parents, he has only vague memories of his country, and he is unsure of his actual age. It is Miro’s job to kill the bus driver once the bus reaches the bridge, but he is shocked to discover that the driver is not the man he expected, but rather Kate Forrester, a teenage girl who happens to be driving this day. He struggles to balance his duty to control the children with uncomfortable physical and emotional feelings manifested through his interaction with Kate. Miro’s duties are carried out under the watchful eye of Artkin, a cold-blooded killer well-versed in psychological warfare. One minute he performs a grotesque dance with the body of the dead child, and the next he appears thoughtful and caring as he gently touches and soothes the occupants of the bus. A professional, he behaves in the manner that will most help him attain his goals.
His understanding of human nature sets him apart from the other terrorists, yet his inability to discover that he, too, is being manipulated leads to his own death. Kate realizes that, because she has seen the terrorists without their masks, she will be killed. She uses her own sexuality to disarm Miro psychologically and then she attempts an escape from the bridge. The bus engine stalls, however, and she remains a prisoner of the terrorists and her own limitations and is killed by Miro. The characters of Benjamin and General Marchand are examined in more detail after the hijacking occurs. The general summons Ben to serve as the messenger who will relay a package from Inner Delta to the terrorists. General Marchand, an expert in psychological warfare, has monitored his son’s behavior for years. While briefing his son for the mission, he purposely feeds false information to Ben concerning the time of the scheduled attack upon the bridge. The general knows that his son will fold under the pressure of interrogation and supply the terrorists with the false information that will lead to their destruction. In essence, he sacrifices his son for what he believes is his patriotic duty. During the surprise attack, Ben is shot by Artkin. Later, unable to come to terms with actions he perceives as cowardly, Ben kills himself. The attack is successful and most of the children are saved, but all main characters are destroyed, either physically or emotionally.